October 4, 2013

Defining the Problems

Last week I reported on my big step of finishing a draft, reading it aloud to my trusted loved ones, and trying not to fall into a pit of despair at the realization that I still have more work ahead. I had a wonderful vacation to visit my far-away family members and not think too much about my novel. I returned home not exactly eager for more revision, but at least ready to face the next step.

Reading my novel to a (very patient) audience turned up three levels of problems that I need to address:

The easy problems are the sentence-level issues that I noted myself as I read aloud. Whenever I stumbled over a phrase (and I did this a lot), I underlined the tricky area, and it will be simple and satisfying to fix all these rough patches. Reading my work aloud led me to notice words that were repeated in close proximity or awkward combinations of sounds. Occasionally in a long dialogue I'd become confused about who was speaking, and of course anything that's confusing even to the author is a huge red flag. Spotting these easy problems didn't really involve the audience, though I think having listeners caused me to read more slowly and thoughtfully than when I read aloud to myself, which I do often and highly recommend to all writers.

Learning about the medium problems was what I most wanted to accomplish by reading to my familial literary advisory board. At the end of each chapter, I'd ask them for reactions, and sometimes there were specific parts that they were confused about or found implausible. These are issues that I couldn't spot on my own, because I have the scenes and justifications inside my head and already know what I mean by everything. I find this type of feedback the most rewarding part of receiving critique, because when a complaint has a clear, distinct source, it's never too much work to fix it, and afterwards I know I've made a worthwhile improvement. Also in the medium category are the scenes that felt too long once I read them aloud, a problem generally noted both by me and by my listeners.

The hard problems are the ones I hoped I wouldn't encounter, and the ones leaving me discouraged. I'm grateful to have such a perceptive audience at my disposal, and I wouldn't have read my manuscript to them if I didn't want to know what they thought, but some of what they thought is that there are still large-scale issues in my story, and I agree. These are problems like a failure to convincingly explain and portray the anger one character feels toward another throughout the novel. A criticism of that type can't be fixed by making changes to only a scene or two, and I'm often not even sure how to fix it. The hard problems are hard because addressing them requires significant work, and at the same time, they are the most important issues to deal with, because they have the greatest impact on the novel.

So, right now, I'm sorting out the logistics of dealing with these three levels of issues, and I'm starting to make progress on fixes. The hard problems are still scary, but I'm figuring out a way to deal with them while staying out of that pit of despair.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund speaks out In Praise of Slow Writing: "With time on my side, what may have been a surface scene just to move things along becomes something much deeper; when I take things slow, everything connects in ways that matter much more than if I were going for speed."

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